In this lesson you will learn everything you will ever need to know about the present tense in German. This master class covers everything from regular conjugation to stem-changing verbs and even modal verbs (auxiliaries). You can watch the replay of the livestream above or read through the notes below the video. If you would like the extra materials mentioned in the video, simply click here and I will send them over to you. These materials include worksheets and answer keys for every topic explained in this post.
The two verbs below are completely regular in the present tense in German. They don’t do anything fancy. They simply follow the rules. In order to conjugate a verb in the present tense, you need to know a few vocabulary words. “Infinitive” refers to the original form of the verb. It is the form you find in the dictionary and generally ends with “-en”. The “verb stem” is the part of the verb before the -en. In order to conjugate a verb, you need to remove the -en and then add appropriate endings to the stem that is left. The endings are listed in the slide above, which includes the conjugation of the verbs “gehen” and “machen”.
When “du” doesn’t use -s
If a verb stem ends with -s, -ss, -ß, -x, or -z you do not add an -s in the “du” form of the verb. This is the only change that happens with any verb stem with these endings. All of the other forms are exactly as they were before. The slides below show you examples of each of those endings.
The Pronunciation-Aiding E
If a verb stem ends with -d or -t, you need to add -e between the verb stem and the conjugation ending for “du”, “er, sie, es” and “sie, Sie”. This allows you to more easily pronounce these forms of the verbs. Obviously, the other forms do not require this extra -e, as the other forms already have E’s in them. The affected forms are highlighted in green below.
A similar issue comes up when the verb stem ends with either -m or -n and that letter is preceded by another consonant. As you can see in the examples below, the same forms of the verb as before require an extra -e between the verb stem and the conjugated endings.
Caution: Pronunciation-Aiding E isn’t always needed
As a word of caution the rule with -m and -n does not apply if the consonant is connected to the syllable preceding the -m or -n. This happens in verbs like “lernen” where the “R” is a vocalic “R”, which means that it is connected to the “E”. This means the verb is not complicated to pronounce without adding -e between the stem and ending. The rule also does not apply if the -m or -n is actually a double -m or -n. While this technically is an -m or -n with another consonant, the fact that the consonants are the same means that the consonants make one sound and therefore do not require the extra -e.
Present Tense German Verbs That Don’t End with -en
Occasionally you might come across a verb that does not have -en at the end of the infinitive, but instead ends with -ln or -rn. In those instances, the conjugated forms that usually have -en only have -n. It is also noteworthy that the “ich” form of these verbs can be shortened to “sammle” and “wandre” respectively.
The Most Important, but Completely Irregular Verbs in German
Two of the most useful verbs in German are “haben” (to have) and “sein” (to be). Both of them follow a conjugation pattern of their own. “Haben” is the less weird one, as it simply loses the -b in the middle of the word for “du” and “er, sie, es”. “Sein”, on the other hand, makes no sense whatsoever. Its forms can be found in the image below. You simply have to memorize them, as they don’t follow any pattern that resembles any other verb in the German language.
The verbs “werden” (will, to become) and “wissen” (to know) are also in a category all of their own. “Werden” is only weird in the “du” and “er, sie, es” forms. For some reason the “du” form is “wirst” and the “er, sie, es” form is “wird”. “Wissen” starts with the stem becoming “weiß” for the “ich”, “du” and “er, sie, es” forms with the “du” form additionally taking a -t at the end to become “weißt”. These four verbs together are the only verbs in German that don’t follow a pattern that can be followed in more than one verb.
Present Tense Stem-Changing Verbs in German
Stem-changing verbs, as the name implies, have verb stems that change in some way. Specifically they have a stem vowel change. This change only occurs in the “du” and “er, sie, es” forms.
German Stem-Changing Verbs: a-ä
Most of the time, the stem vowel change does not affect the conjugation endings, but it does affect the rule that was mentioned before with verb stems that end with -d or -t. These forms will simply not add the -e for “du” and “er, sie, es” when the stem changes from “A” to “Ä”. The examples below change from “A” to “Ä”.
German Stem-Changing Verbs: e-i
Some verbs change from “E” to “I”. Those verbs are mostly normal, as they simply change the vowel in the “du” and “er, sie, es” forms. The verb “nehmen” is an outlier, as it changes to “nimmst” and “nimmt” for those forms instead of keeping the “H”, as the other forms do.
German Stem-Changing Verbs: e-ie
The last category of stem-changing verbs are those that change from “E” to “IE”. These verbs are pretty straight forward, as the “du” and “er, sie, es” forms have “IE” where the other forms have “E”, just as you would expect.
German Separable Prefix Verbs in the Present Tense
Certain verbs in German have what are known as separable prefixes. These prefixes, as the name implies, are removed from the main part of the verb when used in simple sentences. Simple sentences are those without modal verbs (auxiliaries), which are covered later in this lesson or complicated word order, such as subordinating conjunctions or demonstrative pronouns. The image below lists the prefixes in this category. Each of the prefixes have a meaning associated with them, but this is not an exact science. The meanings of these prefixes are pretty flexible, as you will see in the example sentences. There will be no notes below the slides for example sentences. In these examples, the prefixes have been removed and placed at the end of their respective sentences.
German Dual Prefix Verbs in the Present Tense
Dual prefixes, as the name implies, can be separable, but don’t have to be. The meaning of the verb changes based on whether the prefix is separable or inseparable. There is a thought process that says verbs that are being used more figuratively are going to be used with separable prefixes, but this only really works about 50% of the time. Honestly, it is just easier to memorize these prefixes and their accompanying verbs as you encounter them. One rule that does work every time is that the separable versions of these prefixes will be stressed when saying the infinitive of the verb.
German Inseparable Prefix Verbs in the Present Tense
Other prefixes cannot be separated from the verb. This is important, as you may look at a verb and think, “That looks like this other verb I know, I bet that prefix is separable.” But in reality, it might be one of these prefixes. You need to know which prefixes are separable and which ones are not. Just as I mentioned with the separable prefixes, there are meanings attached to these prefixes, but they are fluid. Again, I will not annotate the example sentences.
Present Tense of Modal Verbs (Auxiliaries)
Modal auxiliaries, also known as modal verbs or auxiliary verbs, are verbs that are generally used with other verbs in one sentence. They act like helpers to the sentence and change the way that the main verb acts. Grammatical jargon says that this change is a change in “mood”, which is why they are called “modal verbs”.
No one really cares what they are called and why. What is important is that they are conjugated in a weird way and they generally use another verb in the sentences. The other verb in the sentence gets put back into its infinitive form and moves to the end of the sentence. The pattern generally is that the top of the chart (the singular forms of the verb) are irregular and have some sort of stem change. Also, the “ich” and “er, sie, es” forms of the verb don’t get an ending. All of that is to say that the conjugation of these verbs simply has to be memorized.
mögen vs möchten vs wollen
Many German textbooks list “möchten” as one of the modal verbs (auxiliaries), but that is deceptive. Technically, “möchten” is just a form of “mögen”. It is the subjunctive (Konjunktiv 2) form of “mögen”. The conjugation is listed below, but if you are wondering why the conjugation is weird in a different way than the other verbs on this list, the reason is that the endings follow the simple past tense (preterite or Präteritum). These all have -te followed by another ending.
The verb “mögen” itself means “to like”. If you are using “gern” with “haben” it is perfectly acceptable to use “mögen” instead. Be careful when using “mögen” with an additional verb, however, as this is generally translated as “may” instead of “like”. This makes the sentence mean something completely different than the original sentence. The final distinction on this page is that “möchten” and “wollen” are similar, but not the same. “Möchten” is considered more polite than “wollen”. It is the same in English. It is more polite to say “I would like that.” as opposed to “I want that.”
dürfen vs können vs müssen
The verbs “dürfen”, “können” and “müssen” are conjugated as the image below shows. They each lose their umlaut in the singular forms, but not always in the same way. “dürfen” changes from “Ü” to “A”, but “müssen” changes from “Ü” to “U” and “können” changes from “Ö” to “A”. Again, you have to memorize this conjugation.
Below are a few examples of how to use these three verbs “dürfen”, “können”, and “müssen”. Notice that the verb at the end of each of the sentences are in the infinitive form. This includes the verb “aufbauen”, which would normally be a separable prefix verb, but in this sentence it is put back into the infinitive, which is one word instead of being split.
sollen vs sollten
The verb “sollen” is another verb that is commonly used in the subjunctive (Konjunktiv 2), just as “mögen” is. This means that there is a commonly used version of “sollen”, which includes the -te endings you saw on “möchten”. These forms are often translated the same, which leads to confusion for German learners. The real translation should be that without the -te endings it is not a suggestion, but more of a command. With the -te endings the meaning is much more of a suggestion or recommendation. You can see this more clearly in the examples in the following image.
German Modal Verbs (Auxiliaries) Present Tense Examples with Additional Verb
The example sentences below highlight what happens when a sentence is written with a normal verb and then what happens when a modal verb (auxiliary) is introduced. You can clearly see in each of the sentences that the other verb has been moved to the end of the sentence in the infinitive form.
Implied Secondary Verbs with Modal Verbs (Auxiliaries)
Occasionally it is acceptable to leave out the extra verb, when the meaning is clear without the other verb. This is most commonly done with “essen” (to eat) and “trinken” (to drink), but it can also be done when the sentence includes movement from one place to another, but the movement is expressed via a prepositional phrase.
Present Tense Master Class Materials
As I mentioned at the top of this post, there are additional materials to go with this lesson. These include worksheets for every topic mentioned and answer keys for those worksheets. If you would like these materials, you can find them here. If you found this post helpful, please share it with your German learning friends.